Va. Takes Stock of Army's Decision

Vehicles enter Fort Belvoir. Jobs now headed to Alexandria would have gone to Belvoir under an earlier plan.
Vehicles enter Fort Belvoir. Jobs now headed to Alexandria would have gone to Belvoir under an earlier plan. (U.s. Army)
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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Virginia officials said yesterday that the Army's decision to put 6,400 defense workers in Alexandria was a blow to efforts to cluster development around mass transit, but they expressed hope that the impact on traffic could be minimized with stepped-up bus service and road improvements.

The owner of the Mark Center, the private development on Seminary Road where the office complex will be built, said it will invest as much as $10 million to improve intersections and expand lanes in the area. The company, Duke Realty, also plans to create a transportation hub on the site, with local bus service and shuttle service to the King Street Metro, which has a Virginia Railway Express depot.

The site will also benefit from the proposed widening of Interstate 395 to provide high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, state officials said.

Still, officials expressed disappointment that the Army did not choose to build the office complex on federally owned property in Springfield.

Northern Virginia officials have sought to focus development in areas with mass transit as a way to relieve debilitating traffic congestion. The Springfield location would have been within walking distance of Metro and VRE. Army officials ruled out that site because of cost and time constraints.

"I'm very disappointed," Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said. "It belonged at the Springfield site. The problem was the Army was under the gun. [But] I think if we emphasize bus service and van and carpooling, we could make the best of this situation."

The Army's decision is part of a larger base realignment plan announced by the Pentagon in 2005. The plan calls for moving nearly 20,000 Washington area defense jobs, most of them in Arlington County, to more-secure locations. Most of the jobs will go to Fort Belvoir and the nearby Engineer Proving Grounds, but Army officials agreed to shift 6,400 of the workers to a third location to reduce the likely adverse effect on traffic at Belvoir.

"We would have needed hundreds of millions of dollars in traffic improvements" if the Army had pursued its original plan of putting all the jobs at Fort Belvoir and the Engineer Proving Ground, said Assistant Army Secretary Keith E. Eastin in an interview Monday. "Without those kinds of improvements, the area just couldn't take it."

On his monthly call-in show on WTOP (103.5 FM) yesterday, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said he would have preferred the Springfield location because of its proximity to transit. However, he said he was relieved that the jobs were being shifted away from Fort Belvoir.

"I don't think it's optimal," he said. But "putting the jobs right on the Belvoir footprint . . . would have been, I think, nearly a disaster in terms of transportation infrastructure."

Jim Curren, a transportation consultant for the Army, said the effect on traffic would be negligible with enough planning -- an assertion that was met with skepticism by some state and Fairfax County officials.

Nearly 20 percent of the workers who would be heading to Alexandria live in Prince William County, Fredericksburg or Stafford County, according to Army statistics, and most of the 6,400 being moved now commute to Metro-accessible office buildings in Arlington. As a result, Curren said, many of the workers will have similar commutes, not longer ones.

The Army wants as much as 40 percent of the workforce at Mark Center to use alternative forms of transportation, including ride-sharing and VRE, to get to work, Curren said. He estimated that 1,500 cars would be added to area roadways around rush times.

If the bus and road improvements are in place, "we should maintain the level of service, and you shouldn't see things getting worse," said Curren, senior program manager with the transportation consulting firm PBS&J.

Fairfax officials, who have been critical of the Army's choice of the Mark Center, said many riders would be discouraged from using Metro or VRE because they would have to take a shuttle bus to get to and from the station.

Fairfax Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said I-395 is already congested during rush periods. "I don't think 395 can take one more car, let alone 1,500," he said. "And I can tell you that transit only works if it is convenient. The more times you force a commuter to change modes, the less likely they are to do it."

Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said one long-term way to reduce congestion would be to bolster bus service along the I-395 corridor and south of Alexandria, where many of the employees live. Although the Springfield location was preferable from a transportation perspective, he said, the Mark Center will be workable.

"We are going to try and make the transit and highway improvements necessary to serve the Mark Center," he said. "I do think we can work with them."

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